Was It Jackson? A Close examination of Capt. Charles H. Weygant’s Mysterious Horseman, May 2d, 1863

WAS IT JACKSON?

A Close examination of Capt. Charles H. Weygant’s Mysterious Horseman, May 2d, 1863

By Steve Haas

On the evening of May 2, 1863, the 124th New York had a meeting with a group of Confederate horsemen. The regiment fired on those horsemen, and the horsemen disappeared into the woods.

For the rest of their lives, the men of the 124th believed they had shot at Confederate Major Thomas J. Jackson, who was killed that night by his own troops. The 124th believed that they had either killed Jackson, or caused him to turn back into his own troops, causing his death by the hands of his own men. This belief was held by many other men and regiments in the III Corps, and formed a good part of the lore of the survivors of this Corps.

This article is meant as a critical analysis of that event, a detailed look at a mystery in one regiment’s archives. Hopefully, this will clear up the mystery.

The account of Charles Weygant, author the 124th’s regimental history, reads as follows: ”

…..A moment later, my attention was drawn to a slight rustling in the road, just in front of me, and a horseman rode up and asked, in a tone of authority, ‘What regiment is this?’ and added, ‘Colonel, don’t fire into your own men,’ for at that juncture, in reply to another slight shower of bullets which passed over their left, our regiment, without waiting for orders, opened a straggling fire. Colonel Ellis, who at the time stood talking with me, stepped toward the questioner and replied, in a loud voice, ‘This is the One Hundred and Twenty-Fourth New York, and by —— we will give them shot for shot, friend or foe.’ Meantime several other horsemen appeared, and drew rein in the shadow of the trees. At Colonel Ellis’ gruff answer, this unknown officer whirled and put spurs to his horse, and the whole party dashed in the woods on the farther, or north side of the road, followed by a ball from Colonel Ellis’ revolver and a volley from Company A….”[1]

Weygant then gives several quotes from Professor R.L. Dabney, of the Union Theological Seminary, Virginia, from his book, “Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant-General Thomas J. Jackson,” and some officers of General Jackson’s Staff to show that Jackson did indeed utter those words, was in the locale, and gave actions similar to those described in Weygant’s account. He concludes thusly, “Again I ask, was the officer who rode out of the woods and asked, ‘What regiment is this,’ Stonewall Jackson? Let others answer as they may, in my mind there is not the slightest doubt if it; but as to whether his mortal hurt was caused by one of the bullets the 124th sent after him as he rode away, or by that of one of his own men as he returned to them is not so clear.”[2]

In order to reconcile the question of the 124th’s involvement in the wounding of General Thomas J. Jackson, two key facts must be established; first is the geographical position of Colonel Emlin Franklin’s First Brigade, 3rd Division, III Corps; the second is to determine the time of the encounter with Weygant’s mysterious horseman.

Weygant recalled that the 124th NY was ordered from the vicinity of Catherine Furnace late in the afternoon of May 2 and was massed with other units by General Sickles as soon as they “came to another cleared farm.” He goes on to state that  “our brigade (Franklin’s)….moved on across the open space and took position in the edge of the woods beyond.”  He describes the position of the regiment thusly:

“The right of the 124th now rested on a road which ran at right angles with their line and into the woods in front of them. This road was….the “Orange Plank Road…the clearing behind us was the Van Wert farm. We were facing West”[3]

This road is further defined later in Captain Weygant’s narrative, when he vividly (and accurately) described the late night attack of General Birney’s division, spearheaded by General J. Hobart Ward’s Brigade. The only road available for Ward’s troops that could accommodate their formation of column of companies closed en masse was the road leading from Catherine Furnace north to Hazel Grove, or through a break in the forest known as “Vista” and terminating at the Orange Plank Road near an old school house. Certainly it was this road that anchored the right of the 124th NY, not the Orange Plank Road. And, since this lane runs in a roughly north-south direction, the 124th NY must have been facing north, not West.

As for the “clearing” described by Weygant as the Van Wert Farm, Col. Emlin Franklin, the brigade commander, reported that his brigade was located “on a hill” and “placed in a position to the left and front (of a line of III Corps Artillery) about 200 yards holding a line of woods which skirted an open field.”[4] This position is confirmed in the official report of the 3rd Division, III Corps, written by Captain Henry R. Dalton, Assistant Adjutant-General of the 3rd Division (for the deceased General Amiel Whipple). Dalton submitted “the First Brigade was then put in two lines, to the left and front of the batteries, close to the woods on the edge of the open field….[5] Although the terrain does bear some similarity to the vicinity of the Van Wert Farm, there were simply no III Corps units positioned at Van Werts’. The terrain described by Franklin, Dalton and Weygant can only be the Hazel Grove sector; the farmhouse was just a small structure noted on many maps of the area. It is important to note that the position of the 1st Brigade at Hazel Grove is over 100 yards southwest of Van Wert’s on Orange Plank Road.

As for the time of the encounter with the horseman, eyewitness accounts written very soon after the battle provide interesting information. Private Henry Howell of Co. E., 124th NY, in a letter dated May 7, 1863 wrote that:

“There was a rail fence breastwork that protected the first line from the minnie balls. Until 11 o’clock the 122d PV (Pennsylvania Volunteers) were on the first line and we were 8 or ten rods (about 50 yards) behind them…at 11 o’clock we changed places with the front line and stood there until morning.”[6]

The pieces seem to fit, corroborating the accounts of Dalton, Franklin and Weygant. While First Sergeant Sprenger’s account mentions a time of “10 pm”, the official report of his regimental commander, Lieut. Col. Edward McGovern, 122 PV asserted that “about 11 p.m. the enemy advanced and opened fire. My skirmishers fell back, as directed, and immediately I opened fire….shortly afterward, I was relieved by the 124th New York Volunteers.”[7]

Weygant, in his vivid description of his night reconnaissance patrol, gives us little indication of the time of this mission. One might surmise that it took place soon after the 124th took to the picket line at 11 p.m. This premise gains further support upon consideration of another Howell letter…this one written by Henry’s brother, Corporal William Howell, also of Company E. On May 4, 1863, William wrote: We were behind a fence at the edge of a wood where the rebs were in force…(They were) said to  be Stonewall Jackson, just come down from Culpepper…we sent 40 men a few rods into the woods…[8]

With General Sickles’ planed night attack fast approaching its “jump off” time, the requirement of timely information as to what lay ahead for Ward’s men in the woods around Vista and beyond became crucial. Logically, the task was delegated to the III Corps most advanced unit at the time: the 124th NY. While Company B’s Captain Henry Murray probed a trail obliquing from the regiments’ left flank, Weygant lead his small squad north into Vista. His exciting account of the sortie concluded with the unfortunate wounding of private Ciles and the hasty withdrawal of Weygant’s now compromised reconnaissance. It would not be unusual for the Confederates to investigate the reason for some unexpected firing so near to their front lines, especially when the location of the enemy was unclear; this is exactly what prompted Jackson’s reconnoiter.

When was General Thomas Jackson shot?

In The Rebels Resurgent volume of the Time-Life series on the Civil War, p. 138, we find that “…a little before 9 p.m. Jackson rode ahead with several staff officers to scout the enemy lines near the plank road.” In Bigelow’s The Campaign of Chancellorsville, pg. 317, the description ran thusly:

Jackson with his party had halted in the rear of the 3NC. After listening for a while to the sounds coming from the Federal lines, he turned his horse about and went back towards the Confederate lines. He had halted for a second time to listen when, at about 9:15 (pm), the sound of firing caused by General Knipes call for General Williams and by the appearance of his orderly in front of the Federal lines broke upon his ears….Jackson and his party hurriedly left the Plank Road, and pursued their way to the rear through the woods on the right, or north side of the plank road. The Confederate troops were now keenly alert, having been warned against possible attack by the Federal cavalry. The thumping hoofs and the clanking of sabers produced by Jackson and the …escorts caused an impression in the line that a charge was about to break upon them. The order was given to fire and repeat the firing.”[9]

R.R. Dabney, in his Life and Campaigns of Lieutenant General Thomas J. Jackson, pg. 686, confirms this account by noting that Jackson “….turned and rode hurriedly back to his own troops and, to avoid the fire, which was, thus far, limited to the south side of the road (Orange Plank Road), he turned into the woods upon the north side.”

As to the location of Jackson’s wounding, Douglas Freeman, in Lee’s Lieutenants, Vol. I, pg 56, wrote that “Stonewall turned his horse and started back the way he had come. Silently he rode along til he was nearly opposite a weather-boarded house in the woods by the roadside. Suddenly, from the south side of the road there was a shot. Several others were fired. A volley roared through the woods.” Jackson’s own guide that night, Cavalryman David J. Kyle (and one of the very few men with Jackson who was familiar with the ground in daylight) wrote that “Jackson was opposite the Van Wert house” when the fateful shots were fired.

According to these accounts, Jackson’s wounding apparently took place just after 9:15 pm on the north side of the Orange Plank Road opposite Van Wert’s house. This location was well over a half-mile from the established position of Franklin’s First Brigade near Hazel Grove and nearly two hours before the 124th NY was on the picket line. Even if one discounts all the Union sources thus far examined and only compared Wegant’s testimony of the 124th’s position late on May 2 to that of the Confederate sources mentioned, Jackson’s wounding would have taken place behind the 124th – for that was where Weygant remembered the location of Van Wert’s house!

While this author does not dispute Weygant’s and Sprenger’s heartfelt belief that the mysterious horseman was “Stonewall” Jackson, the weight of the evidence does not support their belief. Well….if the rider was not Jackson, then who was it?

Private James C. Heggarty, noting the day’s highlights with fragmented phrases in his diary, wrote that on May 2, “….the whole brigade lay along the picket line about midnight the regt. Fired into reb Col. Taken (written here as it appears in Heggarty’s diary.) This time seems to coincide with the sequence of events recounted by Weygant, as well as General Birney’s assertion in his official report that the attacking columns that night stepped off at “11:30 pm.” Compare these established times and events to the report of Co. D.H. Hamilton, the acting commander of McGowan’s South Carolina Brigade (the body of opposing troops in the closest proximity to Vista and the road connecting Catherine Furnace with Orange Plank Road) who remembered the brigade reaching the Plank Road by “sunset.” Then at “about 11 o’clock, orders were given for an advance of the brigade….at 12 o’clock midnight the brigade was marched to a position in front of the enemy’s breastworks.[10] In Hamilton’s regimental report, he recorded that “I was pushing on when my acting adjutant Captain T.P. Alston, came to inform me that the left of my regiment had become separated from me in the thicket through which we were forcing our way.”[11] But far more interesting was the manner in which Hamilton singled out Alston for praise in his report: “Captain T.P. Alston, First regiment South Carolina Volunteers, who acted as my assistant adjutant-general, I feel myself under great obligation for his untiring zeal and efficiency. He was ready at all hours to go to any position, either to the skirmishers in front or along the line.” In point of fact, Alston is the only staff officer spotlighted for such service out of all the reports from McGowan’s and Archer’s Brigades who, according to National Park Service base maps and map illustrations in Bigelow’s were the brigades closest to Franklin’s 1st Brigade that night.

Was it Captain T.P. Alston who, during a brigade movement at night, rode forward to investigate the cause of some minor firing to the South Carolinian’s immediate front and called out into the gloomy night to some distant shadows with the reasonably unremarkable words: “What regiment is this?” and “Colonel, do not fire into your own men?” And, was it Captain Alston who, discovering a full Federal line to his front, turned and galloped away, barely escaping a volley from the 124th’s company A? Was it possible that First Sergeant Sprengler, 122 PV mistook this volley for the firing of Birney’s men, which occurred soon thereafter?

The definitive identity of the mysterious horseman may never be known. What is known is that a certain Captain Alston, from the 1st South Carolina performed splendidly “at all hours” and at “any position,” be it “the skirmishers in front or along the line,” while his brigade advanced in a close proximity to the III Corps’ northernmost picket line at Hazel Grove at a time which seems to fit both Weygant’s chronology and the recollections of Federal eye-witnesses. One fact is now clear – the unfortunate General Thomas Jackson had been wounded nearly two hours before a Confederate horseman and some New Yorkers from Newburgh confronted each other in Hazel Grove.

Bibliography

1) Weygant, Charles H., “History of the 124th New York Volunteers,” Journal Printing House, Newburgh, New York, 1877, Reprinted in 1986 by Butternut Press, Inc., 19761-W. North Frederick Avenue, Gaithersburg, maryland, 20879

2) LaRocca, Charles J., “This Regiment of Heroes.” 1991, Charles LaRocca, 209 Goodwill Road, Montgomery, NY  12550

3) Bigelow, John Jr., “Chancellorsville.” Konecky & Konecky, 156 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY  10010, 1995

4) “Camp and Field Life…the History of the 122nd Pennsylvania Volunteers.” Author and publsher unknown.

5) Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Volume XXV, pt. 1

[1] Weygant, Charles, “History of the 124th New York Volunteers,” Morningside Press, 1988, p 110

[2] ibid p. 113

[3] ibid p. 108

[4] Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Vol. 25, pt. 1, pg 494

[5]ibid pg. 491

[6] LaRocca, Charles, “This Regiment of Heroes,” pg 132

[7] Official Records, pg 498-9

[8] LaRocca, Charles, pg. 123

[9] Bigelow, John, Bigelow’s The Campaign of Chancellorsville, pg. 317

[10] Official Records, pg. 904-6)

[11] ibid pg. 901-3

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